After more than 13 weeks of mass demonstrations, strikes and violent confrontations, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, will finally withdraw her controversial extradition bill which was the catalyst for the widespread civil unrest. Yet the move is unlikely to make any major impact.
Even the highly ineffective Lam must recognise that the activism on her streets has now extended way beyond that single issue. The original mass protests have rapidly developed into a comprehensive pro-democracy social movement, dubbed both the "hard hat revolution" and the "revolution of our times."
“We want the right to vote-without that we can’t change anything,” one masked protester, who gave his name as Tang, told me at the mass demonstration in Yuen Long on 27 July – and a lot has changed since then. The violence has escalated and the leaderless protest movement regards this as the last stand for their city’s core liberal values and identity.
It will take more than the overdue withdrawal of the extradition bill to quell the revolutionary fervour or to pacify the deep resentment about what many regard as excessive police action. Protesters have always called for all of their five demands to be met, including an independent enquiry into policing methods during the protests.
On Wednesday, the Independent Police Complaints Commission issued a statement indicating it was appointing a panel of international experts to advise it on its “thematic study on police practices and procedures arising from recent public order events”. It’s early days, but this may prove to be as significant as Lam’s withdrawal of the bill.
Former Legislative Council member and treasurer of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, Sin Chung Kai, has known Carrie Lam for some 40 years, since they were university classmates and he thinks her days are numbered. “She is neither representing the interests of Hong Kong or Beijing” he says, adding that “strong political rumours” indicate Beijing is already casting its net for a more socially acceptable replacement.
Her departure combined with the Bill’s official withdrawal, and an independent investigation into police methods, might not meet all of the five demands but it may be enough to take the heat out of the current crisis and buy time. It was always available as a potential political solution but, until today, Beijing has insisted on a typically uncompromising "comply or die" approach to dissent in Hong Kong. Very few in the city make confident predictions anymore; even fewer can claim to understand the internal political machinations of the Chinese Communist Party, but economics probably holds the key to the future.
Once the impact of the protests threatened to damage the commercial interests of the powerful oligopoly which controls the local economy, things started to change quickly. Defacing the Chinese flag and lobbing petrol bombs might be condemned by the tycoons, but a falling Hang Seng Index and stuttering real estate prices proved even more unacceptable. Even Beijing cannot risk disruption to the economy during a testing trade war with the US.
The struggle for full universal suffrage will continue, of course. Protest, and even violent riots, have long been part of the political scene in Hong Kong. Civil disobedience often presented a challenge for the pre-1997 colonial administrations and has always been an unofficial safety valve within a dysfunctional political system. When activists dent the vested corporate interests though, they touch an Achilles heel.
The latest news of Lam’s decision to officially withdraw the bill triggered a sharp rise in share prices on the Hang Seng Index. In Hong Kong, that counts as the ultimate approval rating.
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